A couple of weeks ago I strolled past Kunsthal Charlottenborg as the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s spectacular patchwork quilt of old burlap sacks was going up. A work that I first saw in the sweltering heat of the Venice Biennial in 2015. At first the work seems to address the tropes – globalisation, economy and perhaps poverty – that constitute the mainstream media’s limited vocabulary faced with an increasingly complicated world. But what struck me was that in spite of the worn and scrawled-over burlap sacks that make up the work – formerly used to ship commodities such as coffee, cocoa, etc. – the individual pieces seem to recede into an overall texture. The flatness and scale of the installation does not invite closer examination. Instead the installation forms a decorative backdrop for the hordes of tourists that flock to Nyhavn: A stage where the individual sacks and whatever stories they might tell attain a generic flatness akin to the primitive textures used on 3D objects in computer games.
This flatness reminded me of “Assault on Iran” in the game Kuma/War from 2011 where you played a special-forces soldier whose goal was to destroy an Iranian nuclear refinery. According to the admittedly rather dubious Iranian authorities at the time, this game was part of an American soft-power strategy supposed to make the Middle Eastern population more receptive to a future American invasion. I remember following the trial of one of the programmers of the game in Iran, and thinking at the time how this approach echoed the soft imperialism attributed to American abstract expressionism during the cold war. But also how unsophisticated and ultimately futile the idea of subverting an “enemy” regime through bad computer games seemed to me. In a similar way, to think of Ibrahim Mahama’s piece in political terms, or even to harbour the hope of changing anybody’s mind with this burlap patchwork as a pedagogical tool seems doomed to fail.
Unfolded to its full scale, Ibrahim Mahama’s work is reminiscent of the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies’ meditative matter paintings, or a less gestural version of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings. This is a visual quality that might once have represented a kind of rupture, or been an act of resistance to dominant visual tropes, but in this context it becomes just another comfortably recognisable, rather worn visual hipster rhetoric. As such the piece rests comfortably within accepted traditions of abstract expressionism that seem to have become completely naturalised within the institutions that identify themselves as belonging to contemporary art.
It seems to me that there is hardly any art institution in the world today where soft-power post-war American efforts to forefront art as intrinsically American have not been accepted. Its heritage and conventions have become invisible, and as such unassailable. The adaptation of its style of displaying art, its formats, its ideas of authorship and its idea of surface over depth seems to be everywhere. Could one even imagine an alternative to the individualistic, expressive and non-ideological art as the baseline by which institutions admit or deny entry into the category of art? Thus pushing aside the exhaustingly complex narrative interplay between the global and the local histories of the production, reception and distribution of art, in favour of a linear and mostly English-language narrative of shared heroic figures.
Ibrahim Mahama’s work was probably meant to highlight traces of previous uses and other histories, but in it eagerness to become real art it seems to have lost its connection to the messiness of lived lives and has become a rather monolithic and somewhat flat-footed symbolic gesture. At a distance it struck me as a perfect example of a similar didactic, schoolmaster-like tendency that seems prevalent in many Danish art institutions right now. My best guess is that a work of this type is meant to raise my awareness of what is deemed to be an important global issue in a grand symbolic gesture, while remaining palatable and identifiable as a piece of contemporary art.
At this point we seem to be in a situation where “high culture” has lost its political and social role as an educator and edifier of the populace. Politically there is no longer any belief that by exposing people to contemporary art, we might somehow raise their awareness, banish their false consciousness and thus turn the general public somehow into a better and more informed democratic forum. While this kind of cultural policy was, and remains, a somewhat questionable agenda, the accompanying ideological demand on art to be free at the very least did afford artists and art a little leeway. A space between the demands of legitimation and the limits of the art historical canon.
The building complex covered in Ibrahim Mahama’s flat texture today houses the conjoined institutions of Kunsthal Charlottenborg and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. As it hangs there, reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic computer game and decorated with a somewhat disingenuous rhetoric of globalisation and ecology, in a place completely indifferent to the messiness of its immediate local situation and its multiple layers of historical context, it exemplifies a biennial style of “criticality”.
While it purports to provoke thought, this kind of work actually leaves very little room for reflection or change of mind for the viewer. The building carrying the work may have been built originally with money made by the slave trade, but this is hardly visible or understandable to the viewers passing by. That would require a guided tour or a text explaining historical facts, thus reducing the work of art to an illustration of written history.
Ibrahim Mahama’s appropriation and use of what was once commonplace materials probably made more sense in the marketplaces or context from which they came, as a sort of investigation of local mechanisms of supply and demand. But through the lens of this curatorial style they are effectively reduced to something to be “read” in the manner of a historical textbook, rather than something to be experienced as a layered reality of multiple possible histories.
It is not that I don’t enjoy a walk on the stones of Venice in the footsteps of Ruskin, with a good Spritz in my hand and surrounded by the spectacle of the global mainstream. But that never stuck me a particularly conducive space for political thought, but rather as space of consumption, comfort and display of what is currently in vogue.
I would really like to have a personal experience and food for thought instead of a didactic show where I am being told something about someone having experiences in some other context. Wouldn’t it be great if someone looked beyond the inert circulation of the major biennials and brought nuance and an open-ended approach to the big questions of our time, rather than spectacle and didactics? What if some of the institutions not only tried to establish a less Eurocentric programming that looks identical to what they already have, but actually sought to challenge the established narrative of art?